The Decoding of Linear B Sheds New Light on Mycenaean Civilization

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The Decoding of Linear B Sheds New Light on Mycenaean Civilization


The Mycenaean civilization flourished in Greece and the surrounding islands in the Aegean Sea around 1400 b.c., during the era Homer depicted in his epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Mycenaean language was written in a script known as Linear B. Sir Arthur Evans first discovered specimens of the Linear B script in 1900 in Crete, and Michael Ventris deciphered them about 50 years later. The ability to read the Mycenaean texts shed new light on this important culture.


The Bronze Age civilization of Crete was the first society in Europe to be capable of fine craftsmanship, public architecture, and writing. It is often called the Minoan civilization, after the legendary King Minos, who was said to have ruled the Cretan city of Knossos. The Minoans spoke a local language about which little is known, but which may have been related to languages spoken in southwestern Turkey. They wrote using a script known as Linear A for four centuries beginning about 1850 b.c. Before that, they had employed a type of hieroglyphic script, using symbols to represent words. The famous Phaistos Disc, dating from about 1700 b.c., is stamped with a series of 45 hieroglyphs of yet another type, arranged in a spiral. The significance of this unique artifact remains a mystery. Its date, determined from the pottery with which it was found, suggests that older hieroglyphs may have been used for ceremonial purposes alongside the more mundane linear scripts.

Just as the Romans were later to borrow much of the basis of their civilization from the classical Greeks, the early civilization of mainland Greece, arising about 1600 b.c., was based upon that of the Minoans. Since one of its main centers was at Mycenae, it is called Mycenaean. Sometimes the term is used in a more general sense to refer to the civilizations in the area of the Aegean Sea from about 1400 b.c..

The Mycenaean Greeks modified the Minoan Linear A script to fit their own language, eliminating some signs and adding others. The result was a new script known as Linear B, which soon replaced Linear A in Crete as well. In fact, some scholars believe that the script was developed by Mycenaeans living in Crete. The first specimens of Linear B, scratched into about 4500 clay tablets, were discovered in 1900 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851- 1941) during his excavations at Knossos. The writing seemed to be used mainly as a way to keep royal, military, religious, and commercial records. A few hundred additional samples were found in Crete and several sites on the Greek mainland, including more clay tablets as well as short inscriptions on pots, jars, and vases.

The British cryptologist Michael Ventris (1922-1956) first became fascinated by the Linear B script as a teenager, when he heard Evans lecture on his finds. In 1949, after serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Ventris began working seriously on deciphering the script. His method involved assuming that the Mycenaean language was an archaic form of Greek and then employing statistical analysis. In June 1952 he announced on British radio that he had deciphered the script and confirmed that the language was the earliest known form of Greek.

Together with John Chadwick, a classical scholar and linguist at Cambridge University, Ventris published the seminal paper, "Evidence for Greek Dialect in the Mycenaean Archives," in 1953. The pair's book Documents in Mycenaean Greek was published in 1956, a few weeks after Ventris had died in an automobile accident. Chadwick wrote an account of their joint effort, The Decipherment of Linear B, in 1958.

Linear B consisted of about 90 signs made with straight or curved linear strokes. It was a syllabic script; that is, each symbol represented an individual syllable, such as ma or ti. In terms of our own phonetic alphabet, we would generally say that a syllable consists of a consonant followed by a vowel. However, vowel sounds alone may form the first syllable of a word; for example, "Athens." So Linear B had signs for a, e, i, o, and u. But the script did not distinguish between syllables beginning with r and those beginning with l, nor did it acknowledge a difference between b and p. It omitted final consonants, and if two consonants appeared together, as in the syllable spe, it either omitted the first or turned one syllable into two by reusing the vowel. In our example the result would be se-pe. These eccentricities often led to ambiguous spellings, which made the script more difficult to decipher.

Both Linear A and Linear B contained a number of ideograms, or symbols for words or concepts, in addition to their syllabaries. Interestingly, while both scripts use the same signs for the basic agricultural commodities and livestock, Linear B has many more signs for military equipment, furniture, and ritual objects.


The work of Ventris and Chadwick proved that the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland during the period of the events in the Homeric epics, roughly 1400-1200 b.c., spoke Greek. Although little is actually known about Homer, he is thought to have lived about 500 years later. Only hints of the ancient dialect appear in Homer's language, preserved by a long oral tradition. So the Mycenaean texts, terse and businesslike as they are, represent the oldest known Greek dialect and shed light on an important era in the development of the early Greek language and civilization.

The clay tablets found by Evans were now understood to show that Greek was also spoken in Knossos at the time of its destruction by fire in 1380 b.c.. The writings were inventories and similar records on unbaked clay tablets that were reused or replaced each year when new records were made. Ironically, the clay tablets with the records from the final year were baked and preserved by the fire that destroyed everything else. The specific cause of the fire is unknown. However, the city had been rebuilt before after previous accidental blazes. There was no sign of an earthquake or other natural causes in 1380 b.c. This leaves arson or invasion as the likely cause.

The fact that Mycenaean Greek was the scribal language of Knossos during this period has led most scholars to assume that Mycenaeans had taken over in Crete. This may have happened peacefully—by assimilation or dynastic marriage—or via conquest in the disarray after the volcano Thera erupted in about 1500 b.c. The effects of this eruption may also have led to the centralization of the Cretan bureaucracy at Knossos; no comparable records have been found in other Minoan population centers. The possibility has also been raised that Mycenaean Greek was not the local vernacular but rather was used for official records as the Aegean lingua franca, much as English is used worldwide today for commercial and scientific communications.

Because they are ledgers rather than literature, the Linear B texts revealed little about the souls of the Mycenaeans, their loves or their hates. However, the texts did provide a number of details about the society that could only be guessed at from the archaeological evidence or from memories preserved in the literature of early classical Greece.

For example, they included inventories of livestock and agricultural produce, textiles, vessels, furniture, military personnel, weapons, and chariots. This gave scholars an idea of what types of supplies they used and what was considered important enough to keep track of. Scientists could gain an understanding of the wool industry and farming practices in general. Military technology had apparently advanced to include tunics reinforced with bronze, and the shape of the lightweight Minoan chariots was shown in an ideogram.

Landholding records were important in terms of the evolution of real estate law into the classical Greek period. They also allowed comparison of the Mycenaean system with those of surrounding areas; for example, the Hittite Law Code. Records of religious tribute indicated that most of the classical Greek gods and goddesses were already worshipped in the Mycenaean era. Most scholars had already believed this, but now they had proof. Traditional Minoan deities such as the goddess Eleuthia were also included in the Knossos pantheon.

There remains much to be learned from the language itself. Understanding the linguistic forms and the meaning of the symbols may help in studying earlier forms of Cretan writing. Knowing what adjustments were made to the Minoan script in order to write Greek can provide hints about the unknown language that was written in Linear A. This is especially important because there are only one-tenth as many known existing Linear A inscriptions as there are for Linear B. In addition, a script related to Linear B was used on the island of Cyprus from the eleventh to the third centuries b.c. Greek as well as the native language Eteocypriot was written in this script.

There is still some controversy about the Mycenaean language and the Ventris decipherment. Although Ventris's theory has been widely accepted, a minority of scholars believe it is not entirely correct. A few even question whether the Mycenaeans spoke Greek at all. The records do contain many non-Greek proper names and technical terms. Others agree with Ventris's reading and believe that Mycenaean was a dialect of Greek, but one that was an evolutionary dead end. In this view, held by a relatively small number of scholars, the later forms of Greek were spread around the Aegean from other Greek-speaking areas and superseded the earlier dialect.

The additional inscriptions found after the Knossos excavations also make sense when interpreted as Greek, lending credence to Ventris's view. If longer passages of prose or poetry are found in the future, the decipherment could be tested conclusively. Archaeologists have found inked inscriptions on clay cups, suggesting that longer documents may have been written in ink on parchment or papyrus.


Further Reading

Castelden, Rodney. Minoans: Life in Bronze-Age Crete. London: Routledge, 1990.

Chadwick, John. Linear B and Related Scripts. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1987.

Davies, Anna Morpurgo, and Duhoux, Yves, eds. LinearB, a 1984 Survey: Proceedings of the Mycenaean Colloquium of the 8th Congress of the International Federation of the Societies of Classical Studies. Louvain-la-Neuve: Cabay, 1985.

Levin, Saul. The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-examined. Albany: State University of New York, 1964.

Ventris, Michael, and Chadwick, John. Documents inMycenaean Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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The Decoding of Linear B Sheds New Light on Mycenaean Civilization

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